Summer 2024

Coach Rick Barnes thanks God as Tennessee men collect first SEC title in 43 years

Under seventh-year head coach Rick Barnes, the Tennessee men’s basketball team finally accomplished something it hadn’t done since 1979: win the SEC Tournament.

The Volunteers rattled off the first 14 points and cruised to a 65-50 win in the final against Texas A&M on Sunday in Tampa, Florida. They were sparked by the backcourt trio of junior Santiago Vescovi (17 points, five assists), freshman Kennedy Chandler (14 points, seven assists) and junior Josiah-Jordan James (16 points, 10 rebounds).

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A few hours later, the Volunteers were rewarded with a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament‘s South Region and a first-round matchup with Longwood.

“First of all, I thank God for the blessing of having this wonderful team with me and these great fans,” Barnes said on the championship podium, before leading the fans in a well-known school cheer. “Right now, all I can think about is, ‘They say it’s great to be a Tennessee Vol, they say it’s great to be a Tennessee Vol!'”

After the victorious net-cutting ceremony, Tennessee players placed what remained of the net around Barnes’ neck.

“I just think it’s their moment,” Barnes said in his postgame press conference. “It’s their time to get the trophy. It’s their time to cut down the nets. They came to Tennessee to help us make it a special place. They’ve done that. It’s truly their time.”

Before Barnes arrived in Knoxville in 2015, the Volunteers had missed three of the previous four NCAA Tournaments. They would miss the first two under Barnes, but he was slowly building the program into a perennial contender. Tennessee has now been a part of the last four tournaments, and he even won the Naismith Coach of the Year award in 2019.

“We said for us to move forward, we’re going to have to have great leadership,” Barnes said in Sunday’s press conference, “because we’ve always been a team that practices hard and [has] done all those types of things, but in the game, watching [our players] take over, talk, communicate, it’s been fun.

“But that’s where it started, a year ago, with them deciding that, ‘Hey, the leadership really had to come from within.’ And we’ve gotten it. … The good Lord has blessed me in so many ways, and having the chance to be with this group has been special.”

Barnes went on to say that a turning point in Tennessee’s season was a one-point loss to Texas in late January. The Volunteers have lost one game since then. It was an emotional game for Barnes, who coached the Longhorns for 17 seasons, from 1998 to 2015, and took them to the 2003 Final Four.

The 67-year-old Barnes spoke openly about his faith in God last April on Sports Spectrum’s “Table Forty” podcast, saying he often neglected God early in his coaching career. But God has been at work in Barnes’ life, drawing him back to Himself.

“I’m just thankful that God, you know, He won’t let go of you,” Barnes said on the podcast. “I don’t think there’s any question He had me when I was young, but I let the world take me down a road and roads that I shouldn’t have gone. But I believe that once He gets a hold of you, He won’t let you go. I think He has great plans to help me become more and more like Him every day.”

Barnes often starts his day by spending time with God, in His Word and in prayer. Recently, he’s even added a prayer for legendary college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale to his morning routine. Vitale has been battling lymphoma but announced last week that he is in remission.

Barnes will seek to stay grounded in his faith during a busy week, as he and his Volunteers will play the No. 14-seeded Longwood Lancers in the first round on Thursday in Indianapolis. The game is scheduled to tip off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

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